Steam locomotives

Book review: ‘How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon’

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The story of the 19th-century innovators whose golden age of engineering helped to forge the future.

Right at the end of the reign of Queen Victoria, as the 19th century turned into the 20th, a serialised novel appeared in the Strand magazine called ‘The First Men in the Moon’.

Published 35 years after Jules Verne’s ‘From the Earth to the Moon’, HG Wells’ novel hypothesises on concepts that we now know – thanks largely to the Apollo missions of the 1960s – to be accurate. Leaving aside the English novelist’s prediction of ‘great beasts’ and ‘monsters of mere fatness’, there are more recognisable references to how desolate the Moon is – think Buzz Aldrin’s “magnificent desolation” – and weightlessness. The inescapable fact is that lunar landings featured large in the Victorian consciousness.

More importantly, says Iwan Rhys Morus in his excellent ‘How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon: The Story of the Nineteenth-Century Innovators Who Forged the Future’ (Icon Books, £25, ISBN 9781785789281), during this phase of the Industrial Revolution there was an intellectual climate cultivating the idea of off-world adventures becoming reality. After all, the engineers of the era had changed the world with railways and the telephone, electric lighting and photography. In a world of progress and technology, going to the Moon would be routine.

As Morus wisely reminds us, the Victorians did not actually take us to the Moon (although his counterfactual prologue describing how it might have happened is eerily plausible). But, he contends, they pointed us in the right direction with the kind of ambition that would not be seen again until President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 address at Rice University in which he announced: “We choose to go to the Moon”.

The Victorians were people of action, who had the resources of a global empire to turn innovation into a world of mechanised mechanics and vast, efficient, organised cities. As Morus says: “They shared a common cause in making their expertise count so that they could actively engage in future-making.”

This idea of Victorian engineers building the future is central to Morus’ narrative; a much more dominant theme than the title of his book suggests. If you examine the cover, you’ll see that the main graphic is of Robert Stephenson’s locomotive Rocket, which not only puts our feet firmly on terra firma with real (rather than speculative) engineering, but is also a clever nod to the idea that the Victorians were already building rockets, albeit steam-powered ones.

What the book is really about, as its subtitle makes clear, is the story of the 19th-century innovators who forged the future. As such, it’s no great surprise to find that alongside Stephenson there are some hefty names putting in an appearance in the form of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Charles Wheatstone and Nikola Tesla (by the way, Morus’ 2019 biography of Tesla is superb).

A terrific insight into why the Victorian era was a golden age of engineering.

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